Remembering Perween Rahman (1957-2013) | Invisible Cities

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Initiated by Akhtar Hameed Khan in 1980, the Orangi Pilot Project is a non-governmental organization that provides social and technical support to neighborhoods in Orangi Town and surrounding areas interested in self-help initiatives by demonstrating how to “finance, manage and maintain facilities such as sewage networks, water supply, schools, clinics, solid waste disposal, and security.” It began work in Orangi Town, which is a cluster of 113 low-income informal settlements, with a total population of 1.5 million. After succeeding in initiating and sustaining five programs on low cost sanitation, housing, health, education and micro-enterprise credit, the scope of the organization spread beyond Orangi into other parts of Karachi, and eventually, the country as well. Its success is reflected in the fact that the OPP model has been adapted in many settlements all over the world; it is now recognized internationally as a model for self-sustained community-led projects.

Perween Rehman (1957-2013) was director of the OPP-RTI (Orangi Pilot Project – Research and Training Institute) at the time of her murder in 2013. She had occupied that position since 1988 when the institute was established, and had been involved with OPP since 1983, just a year after she graduated with a professional degree in architecture from the Dawood College of Engineering and Technology. She was a leading activist who spent a major part of her life to highlight and resolve issues of the poor in her capacity as director of RTI as well as personally.

On March 13, 2013, Perween Rahman was murdered after being shot four times by gunmen who opened fire on her vehicle as she was headed home from work. She was 54.

We remember Perween Rahman on her second death anniversary through the words of Arif Hasan – her mentor and teacher.  Hasan delivered a keynote speech at a symposium held at MIT on the Orangi Pilot Project and the life and legacy of Perween Rahman in April 2014. Adding to the numerous tributes that have poured in after her death, this month, we share some excerpts from Arif Hasan’s keynote and commemorate her remarkable legacy: 

“When we started work in Orangi, the first few young architects we hired left within a week. Perween was the only one that stayed; she’d be there every month I went back to the OPP office. She had to work with Akhtar Hameed Khan’s social organizers who were the political activists of the area and rather tough people, but she stayed. And she was very serious in those days, in those early days in Orangi. Although at college she was full of life. But she was very very serious. So she stayed.

Now, how did Perween evolve? The first assignment that we had was the mapping of Orangi. Our UN advisor said that we should have a surveyor map Orangi since there were absolutely no maps of Orangi. I disagreed and offered to get Orangi mapped by students. So we got 40 students from NED University and from Dawood College of Engineering and Technology in Karachi for this purpose. And the reason for getting students was that students would know about the area, the problems of the katchi abadis, and, at the same time, the students would interact with the people and the people would know what is happening, which was strongly encouraged by us. Once these 40 students had been selected, the question was who was going to supervise these students? We decided Perween would supervise these students. Though most of the students were almost Perween’s age, she managed okay. She did a very good job at turning those rough sketches into maps. From those maps we marked out infrastructure that existed and infrastructure that should be built, should be created. And then these maps were taken to the ward councilors. There was a map for each ward. The ward councilors were told if you build this, people will build their own water supply and sanitation. Akhtar Hameed Khan did the lobbying himself. But Perween was always with him when this lobbying was done. This was her first major learning.

The second major learning came when, in our naivety, we decided to work outside of Orangi, and do exactly what we were doing in other settlements of Karachi. It didn’t work because we couldn’t be there physically. So there was a lot of discussion and we decided to turn the sanitation program into a research and training institute where we would ask people who were interested in the work OPP did for Orangi, to come to institute, receive training, learn in Orangi what was supposed to be done, and then go back to their settlements and do it.  So that was the emergence of the Research & Training Institute (OPP-RTI). The learning process was completely informal: you learn by doing, you learn by observing, you learn by association. And so that project spread. Initially there was great difficulty, but after 15-20 lanes had been made, people saw the problem just next door and they saw the solution. So the extent of the project expanded very rapidly. The Project also changed further after that when we started training contractors and masons as well.

In 1987, we made Perween the Director of the Research & Training Institute. There was a lot of heartburn and a lot of anger. This little girl as a head of the Institute!?, they inquired. The more conservative elements also argued against the designation saying she’s a woman – not even a woman, just a girl – and she’s going to boss over us. But she stuck it out. And in this process, she became very close with the social organizers and the activists; she became a part of them, they became her protectors, they also became her teachers, and she developed very close relations with the families of the people she worked with. So she, unlike Akhar Hameed Khan and myself, had first hand knowledge of how these people were at home, what they did, what their problems were, and how they look at the world. Our knowledge was second hand. Hers was first hand.

The third major learning of Perween came through the housing program. Akhar Hameed Khan said that we have to improve people’s houses. So I designed research that covered the sociology, economics and technology of housing in Orangi. I made the outline. And then again the question arose – who’s going to carry this out? And we said Perween will. And so Perween carried out this research. It was made a part of the third year architecture curriculum which helped with the research. An important part of that research was supporting small contractors and component manufacturing yards in Orangi and improving their product. And so Perween dealt with these component-manufacturing yards and was in charge of the housing project. Right now we serve about 3,500 houses per year.

The fourth learning, which was extremely important, in my opinion, was when my friend Tasneem Siddique became the head of the Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority (SKAA). He decided to adopt the OPP model for improving the settlements that were part of his program. So the on-site infrastructure was mapped by the OPP. And the people were motivated by OPP to do this work. The SKAA did the off-site infrastructure and the two worked together extremely well.  Today, about 72% of all of Karachi’s informal settlements have been regularized even if they have not been improved to the level that they need to be improved. So this gave a lot of security to residents of these settlements. And this we were able to do because we got rid of the old complicated process; we had a camp – the regularization camp – where there was a bank, there was a registrar, and everyone within the settlement was invited over. This was a one-window operation. This was something that Perween learnt to manage and did on her own; my input was very nominal.

So I think with these four things, she acquired knowledge of how to run an institution, which she learnt primarily from Akhtar Hameed Khan. And she learnt about the technology from me. Akhtar Hameed Khan could not have done without me, or someone like me. And I could not have done without Akhtar Hameed Khan. But in the case of Perween, the two things came together. By 1995, she was in a very commanding position. And then she started teaching. She kept teaching until she died. And she brought her students to the OPP regularly, keeping an essential link between the university and OPP.

Akhar Hameed Khan passed away in 1999. With his death, Perween went through a period of problems. She didn’t know exactly how to work this out, but within two to three years she was in command. There were a lot of problems after he died; there were attempts at pushing her out, pushing us out as well with her. But she regained control. Now, what is important to know about Perween is that Perween never read anything. She started to read only three of four years ago. Her knowledge was based entirely on her work, what she saw, what she understood, and she had a very good mind, and she was able to understand what was happening around her, and she used to tell her students also: don’t read these reports, they are a lot of nonsense. So, that was a problem with her. We used to always say that no, they should read these reports even if they don’t make sense to you. So there was this interesting aspect of her. And after Akhtar Hameed Khan died, a very big change took place in OPP, and that change was that from being dominated by planning principles and planning thinking, the project really became a peoples project. That was a very good change. And that changed the relationship of the project with the communities. They became much closer to each other. I think this was her greatest achievement.

Another thing that happened was that Perween said that we were not going to deal with the big bureaucrats, which we used to deal with. She decided that we were now going to deal with middle level bureaucrats. They knew the issues; the big ones didn’t know anything. So that was another big shift, and something she was solely responsible for. And so the project became much closer to the planning agencies than it was before because it was dealing with people working on the field rather than those who sat down in air-conditioned offices and made decisions.

But I think her greatest achievement apart from this was the new wave of mapping that she undertook. She created a cell of Orangi Youth whom she trained in mapping and documenting. And in the process she mapped, or helped map, 350 informal settlements and each and every natural drain of Karachi. The settlement’s location was marked, the existing physical and social infrastructure was marked, the number of house was marked, solid waste collection points were marked; this documentation showed that there was already a sewerage system functional, an informal one, in most of Karachi which was completely ignored by all the planners because it had never been documented. And this documentation completely changed the manner in which Karachi’s sanitation problems were viewed by everybody. And then the boys who were trained, and later the girls, who helped in this mapping, she helped them establish independent institutions. One of them was a technical training resource center, which provides services to the people of Orangi, and to the communities, for the purposes of documenting their settlements. This helps them in negotiating with the government, and also helps the OPP in mapping and training people to map. So this documentation led to major changes in the Karachi water and sewerage war, and the city governments and sanitation planning and I think it was a great achievement.

I won’t go into details of the other programs that she was involved with: there was the education program, supporting young people to open schools; there was the securing housing support program, providing very small loans for housing needs; there was the women’s saving program where women in small collectives saved money and then used it for emergency issues.

The other thing that changed Perween was the earthquake and floods, especially the floods. Because of the linkages the OPP had all over Sindh and Southern Punjab. As soon as the floods took place, the affected communities reached out to OPP. Anwar Rashid, director of the Orangi Charitable Trust, and Perween worked out relief and rehabilitation programs for the communities. And I remember she rang me up when she came back from a trip and she said, “Arif Hasan, the poverty in these areas that I have seen is unbelievable and this is what we should be dealing with and not with these Karachi informal settlements.”

So, what is the legacy of this project? And because she is so much a part of the project, it also her legacy. First of all, the OPP changed goals, approaches and thinking in Pakistan towards informal settlements. That is very important and especially true of Karachi where an eviction today is not an easy thing as it used to be before the project began.

The media has constantly relied upon information about Karachi’s situation from the OPP because there is someone, a group of people sitting there, who have constantly looked at that situation and mapped it and also mapped the expansion of Karachi, and mapped who was creating this expansion and what was the relationship between those who were creating it, and the political parties and investors. So this had a very big impact on the media. And this project created knowledge of how poor people live and think, and this knowledge was documented and was put across in seminars and workshops.

The OPP was very much influenced by the teaching at Department of Architecture and Planning at Dawood College. Most of the architects who today do “social architecture” are products of that teaching. But at the same time, the department was also greatly influenced by the OPP where the students did internships and visited regularly; so a fairly large number of people came to be interested in the issues related to the issues of the poor. Then, there was the Urban Resource Center that we set up. It was Perween’s class of graduates that decided that it was important to set it up and helped in setting it up. This center has done a lot of work in stopping a lot of insensitive projects, changing projects and this could not have been done without the help of the Orangi communities and low income communities with whom OPP was in touch and for whom we wrote about. So it was not just the planners and professionals, but the communities too. For example, there was a whole movement against the privatization of the beaches in Karachi. About 5000 people from the low income areas signed a petition saying they did not want it to happen and the reasons for it, such as the fact that there are 200 schools in the areas, and such a designation would have a considerable impact on them, etc.

All of these are part of OPP’s, and by extension, part of Perween’s legacy.”

Invisible Cities is a Tanqeed blog that seeks to explore alternative discourses on the urban question in cities of the Global South. For pitches and submissions to the blog, please contact, and

Fizzah Sajjad is a city planner based in Lahore, and a recent graduate from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) at MIT.

Hala Bashir Malik is an architect based in Lahore, and currently teaches at the School of Architecture at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.

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